What is “The Student” ?

On Wednesday May 11, CUNY Struggle held the first in a series of open forum discussions about issues central to university organizing, titled “What is the Student?”

The event drew undergraduate students, graduate student-workers, as well as adjunct and full-time professors, who gathered to debate and articulate the ideological underpinnings of a CUNY movement, and specifically the place of the “student” within such a movement.

To really have a productive conversation on this topic, it was useful to clearly delineate our understandings of what is, what ought to be, and how we conceive of the process which will bring us from point A to point B. Therefore we need not isolate empirical analysis from more abstract political analysis, no less from our aspirations for a better world.

It is often the case in university organizing that these questions are rushed en route to practical discussions (organizing demonstrations, etc.) because we assume a broad agreement about what is wrong. True enough, discussants by and large agreed that the university (and the school system in general) is embedded in capitalism. Yet as our conversation progressed, many facets to this question became apparent.

A college education, for many students, is a form of job training. Many emphasized the careerist bent of students at CUNY, who take college courses as a means to accede to a higher socio-economic class than the one they were born into.

From a structural point of view, the university serves to reproduce capitalist social relations by sorting graduates into different jobs. What does this mean, we asked, for the horizons of organizing within it?

Moreover, the fact that CUNY is a public university — and therefore an arm of the state — adds a further dimension. CUNY professors are public servants, and CUNY colleges serve public functions, notably that of creating workers to staff the repressive apparatus (especially police).

If one of the main roles of the university is to created workers, it begs the questions: are students workers? Does treating them as such — for example by providing them with a livable stipend — reinforce or subvert the capitalist university?

We quickly discovered a shared commitment to liberating education from the confines of the capitalist university, which serves to stratify the working class, and often does so along the readymade lines of race, gender, and citizenship. But just what would this liberation look like? We debated the nature of work, and found some disagreement over whether work itself is a practice to be abolished, or simply work in the capitalist context, which enriches a small class at the top while ever degrading the planet and its inhabitants. Do we need a new concept for what life activity — making and remaking our world, and ourselves in the process — would be in a post-capitalist society? We remained divided, but agreed that the very question pointed to a dialectical tendency inherent in the capitalist university.

Building off our discussion of the dual nature of work — which can either enrich human life on earth, or degrade and threaten its existence, while in the latter case remaining necessary for survival under capitalism — one participant noted that, as with everything in capitalist society, the university is contradictory. We had to grapple with the undeniable fact of careerism and the myth of upward social mobility, balanced with other reasons why students attend the university — notably to learn, expand their mind, hone their critical thinking skills, challenge ideas, which would be laudable goals in any economic arrangement. Further along these lines, though the university certainly plays a role in class legitimation, it is also a site in which dissent can blossom. Thus, despite its role in the stratification of the working class, complicity with racist policing, investments in the prison industrial complex, policies of gentrification, and a white supremacist power structure, CUNY is a logical place to struggle for change.

From this premise, participants exchanged notes on how best to do outreach in the university to expand the base for such a struggle. Our theoretical discussion moved to basic brass tacks organizing, tactics and strategy, for the coming semesters.

But to what end should we struggle? These questions are ongoing, and can only be answered through renewed and sustained inquiry, of the kind we hope to foster at future events.

 

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